Traditionally the European green salad was an hors d’oeuvre, a light dish to whet the appetite. Its association with haute cuisine damaged its reputation in the eyes of less sophisticated diners, who could not see the point of eating tasteless lettuce with insipid vinegar.
The French, Italians and Swiss changed this attitude by developing varieties of wild green vegetables specifically for the purpose of serving them in a salad dressed with impeccable oils and vinegars.
The wild valérian variety of lamb’s lettuce or cornsalad (mâche in French, nüsslisalat and rampon in Swiss, valerianella in Italian) was cultivated to produce a nutty flavour.
The same treatment was given to the wild arugula variety of rocket (roquette in French, rucola in Italian), primarily to sweeten its natural bitterness.
Other wild salad leaves – dandelion, chicory, mustard – were domesticated and picked at the correct moment to maximise their natural flavours, before they started to seed and become tough and bitter.
In the 21st century it is not unusual, particularly in Italy and Switzerland, to see green salad in the first course of a menu as a main dish.
Leaves (500 g per person)
Lettuce, cos and field Endive, curly and smooth Chicory Lamb's Lettuce Dandelion Spinach, baby and leaf Radicchio Rocket Watercress Mustard
Vinegar Oil Salt, pinch Pepper, pinch
The oil to vinegar ratio can be anywhere between around 3-1 and 6-1 oil to vinegar, depending on the quality and strength of the oil.
Olive oil is predominant in central and southern Europe, and is used with a generous hand.
Specialist oils are used according to personal taste, especially flavoured oils.
Vinegars are also a question of taste. Generally high quality vinegars are preferred, such as Banyuls and Orléans for their strong full flavour.
Leaves must be washed and thoroughly dried. Use a salad spinner.
The leaves used for green salads in the various regions of Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland determine how much oil and vinegar is used.
In Italy the dressing is left to the diner, poured and sprinkled at the very last minute to a variety of combinations of leaves and a basic 4-1 oil to vinegar, with seasonings.
In the south of France the salad, usually a field or nursery lettuce, will come to the tabke dressed 3-1.
In the Valais/Wallis canton of southern Switzerland lamb’s lettuce (aka mâche or nussalat) is combined with rocket or curly endive and watercress at a 5-2 ratio.
Olive Oil Extra Virgin Grapeseed Oil Hazelnut Oil Groundnut Oil Sunflower Oil Sunflower Oil with Truffle Walnut Oil Olive Oil with Dill Olive Oil with Parmigiano Rinds Olive Oil with Rosemary Olive Oil with Tarragon
Balsamic Vinegar Banyuls Vinegar Tarragon Vinegar Herb Vinegar Raspberry Vinegar
Anchovy and Caper
Not traditionally associated with green salads, this salty tangy dressing lifts a variety of lettuce leaves.
Usually the ratio is six anchovies to one tablespoon of brined or salted capers.
Large pickled capers can be used but they should be finely chopped.
Fresh lemon juice is preferred to vinegar.
Italian olive oils work well, at a ratio of five oil to two lemon.
Season with cracked black pepper.
Bacon and White
Used for salads with robust leaves, such as curly endives, lamb’s lettuce, dandelions, spinach and mustard.
Gently fry 100 g diced fatty unsmoked bacon (pancetta can be used) in a splash of olive oil.
When the bacon is crisp, add three tablespoons of white wine vinegar to the pan and remove from the heat.
Season the salad with salt and pepper, toss, immediately add the bacon vinegar dressing.
Herb and Red
A slight variation, the oil being of a herb infusion (dill or rosemary or tarragon) with raspberry (framboise) vinegar, a 3-1 ratio.
Lemon and Olive
Unless you are on Sicily, where the small lemons are a juicy delight and the olive oil an envious green, this is a 5-2 ratio using fresh juice and the best oil.
Goes well with any combination, but especially with red radicchio.
Mustard and Walnut
Dijon mustard is one choice but this will also work with champagne mustard or tarragon mustard because the walnut oil compliments the tangy flavour, intensifying the overall taste.
Lemon juice may be added to thin the mustard and oil.
Balsamic vinegar is an option.
The ratio is five oil to one mustard plus two of lemon or vinegar.
A little horseradish can be added to dull the sharpness of the mustard.